Practicing the Word, Part Six

Faith and Action, 2:14-26

We come now to the famous portion of James which led to Martin Luther’s depreciation of James’ whole letter, which he described as “a right strawy” epistle.  One of Luther’s problems with James is the seeming contradictions between James and Paul in the area of justification by faith alone (Romans 4 and Galatians 3).  Both writers use Abraham as their example to prove their apparently opposite views.  Compare especially James 2:21 with Romans 4,

Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?  (James 2:21)

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:1-3)

But is there a contradiction between the teachings of these two men?  As we study what Paul wrote and what James wrote it is clear that they are using similar terms but with different meanings.  “Faith” as Paul used the word is saving faith, that is, a person’s relationship with Christ as a result of what Christ did for them.  For James, “faith” refers to something much more shallow:  a belief in something or someone.  So when Paul writes of “works” he means “works of the law” performed by a person in order to secure or maintain their salvation.  But James, when he speaks of “works” refers to the natural outcome of our salvation.  Paul might call these kinds of works “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22).  So upon closer examination there really are not contradictions between James and Paul.  In fact, a much simper way to look at these two views of faith is this:

Paul writes about faith as seen from God’s perspective;
James writes about faith as seen from man’s perspective.

God sees the redeemed heart; no works are necessary to demonstrate one’s salvation to God.  Man cannot see another’s heart, so that same faith needs to be demonstrated so man can see another’s salvation.  This reminds us of what Jesus said in John 3:21,

But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.

1.  When faith is not faith, 2:14-17

A.  A worthless profession, verse 14

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if people claim to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save them?

Like any good preacher, James poses two questions which he knows will be answered in the negative.  Just as before, James prefaces his rebuke by identifying himself with his readers, using “brothers and sisters.”  These questions must be read carefully or James’ carefully crafted illustration will be lost.  These two questions:

“If people have faith but have no deeds?”
“Can such a faith save them?”

actually show that faith not accompanied by good deeds is of no saving value.  The questions are predicated on the case of a person who “claims” to have saving faith, but James does not say they actually do, in fact the implication is that they have a “profession” of faith but not a “possession” of faith.   Reading this verse in the Greek, James’ meaning is clearer:  This faith cannot save him, can it? In other words, saying you have faith but not demonstrating you have it is a good indication you don’t really have this saving faith.  Faith without the accompanying deeds cannot save anybody; it takes the kind of faith that proves itself in deeds to save someone.

B.  A parable, verses 15-17

Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

To illustrate the absurdity of claiming to have salvation but without the corresponding good deeds, James tells an absurd parable.  In the Greek, this impoverished brother or sister (note they are believers) is actually naked (Greek gymnoi) This parable is very similar to an argument advanced by John:

If any one of you has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in you?  (1 John 3:17)

The inappropriate response to this destitute individual is shocking:  “Go and put some clothes on and get something to eat.”  The phrase, “What good is it?” shows James’ impatience with kind of behavior.  Clark’s comments on this verse are interesting:

Your saying to them, while you give them nothing, will just profit them as much as your professed faith, without works which are the genuine fruits of true faith, will profit you in the day when God comes to sit in judgment on your soul.

Verse 17 drives the point home:  if there is no action behind a profession of faith, then that faith is dead.  Of note here is that James does not deny the this individual has faith, just that it is the wrong kind of faith.  What kind of faith is James referring to?  A good example of this “dead faith” is seen in Acts 26, in the case of King Agrippa.  Paul had been explaining salvation to the King and said this:

“The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner.  King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”  (Acts 26:27-27)

Agrippa had, what we might call, “intellectual faith,” but it was dead.  Because of his religious background, Agrippa knew the Old Testament teachings, but he didn’t allow those teachings to influence how he lived, therefore, to him, they were dead.

2.  An objection answered, 2:18-19

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”   Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.  You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

At this juncture, James introduces the views of an imaginary opponent who wants to separate faith and works, suggesting that a person may have one without the other.  James does not argue the priority of works over faith; he merely states matter-of-factly that there can be no valid Christian faith apart from works of righteousness.  Some commentators (Bowman) think that James has in mind Christians and Jews.  The Jew claims works and the Christian claims faith.  It is probably best understood that James is merely making another illustration here.  Using two hypothetical people again, James says that faith must be demonstrated by good deeds.

Faith is an attitude of the inner man, and it can only be seen as it influences the actions of the one who possesses it.  Mere profession of faith proves nothing as to its reality; only action can demonstrate faith’s genuineness.  (Burdick)

With verse 19 James confronts the idea that believing a creedal statement is faith enough.  The creedal statement he refers to is Deuteronomy 6:4,

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.

Pious Jews loved to claim this creed as evidence of their faith.  James says that even the demons believe this, so it is evidence of nothing.  Like King Agrippa, simply believing a doctrine or a creed amounts to nothing in terms of salvation.  We might say that merely going to church doesn’t make anybody a Christian.  Believing in God and Christian doctrines must be accompanied by a corresponding changed life, marked by acts of righteousness.

John Wesley makes these observations on those with intellectual faith:

This proves only that you have the same faith as devils…they…tremble at the dreadful expectation of eternal torments.  So far is that faith from either justifying or saving them that have it.

3.  Evidence from history, 2:20-26

James turns from parables and illustrations to concrete proofs from Israel’s own history; evidence from their very own Scriptures, that what he has been writing is true.  Clearly, by verse 20 James is losing patience, saying, “You foolish man.”  Gone is the softer “brothers and sisters!”  The Greek says, “O vain man.”  Of this man, Trench says he is one “in whom higher wisdom has found no entrance, but who is puffed up with a vain conceit of his own insight.”

A.  The example of Abraham, verses 21-24

Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?  You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.  And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend.  You see that people are justified by what they do and not by faith alone.

At the outset, it sounds like James is saying that Abraham was justified by works in contradiction to Paul, who wrote that:

So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”  (Galatians 3:6)

Both James and Paul quote from Genesis 15:6 in support of their different arguments:

James in support of Abraham’s actions;
Paul in support of Abraham’s faith.

We reconcile this tension between action and faith like this:  Paul refers to Abraham’s faith at the time God promised to give him a child.  The story is recounted in Genesis 15:1-6 and because Abraham believed God and accepted God’s promise on faith, without any proof whatsoever, he was commended by God.  In God’s estimation, that kind of amazing faith made Abraham a righteous man.  On the other hand, James refers to Abraham’s faith in Genesis 22:1-19, where Abraham was on the verge of offering up his promised son to God as a sacrifice.  He obeyed God, doing exactly what God had told him to do, even though it didn’t make any sense to him.  The faith that was in Abraham in Genesis 15 expressed itself in Genesis 22 by his actions of obedience.  Tasker put it this way:

James is here speaking not of the original imputation of righteousness to Abraham in virtue of his faith, but of the infallible proof that the faith which resulted in that imputation was real faith.  It expressed itself in such total obedience to God that thirty years later Abraham was ready, in submission to the divine will, to offer Isaac, his son.  The term justified in this verse means, in effect, shown to be justified.

So Abraham was declared by God to be justified, then thirty years later Abraham demonstrated that he was, in fact, justified because of his actions.

In verse 24, James offers his summary of Abraham saying, in effect, that a person is justified by faith “but not by faith alone.”  It is by faith and by what the person does.  If we just read that verse by itself, we don’t get the whole picture.  It gives the impression that, in some measure, our salvation depends on our actions.  But when we take what James has taught with what Paul taught, especially in Ephesians 2:8-9, we see that faith and actions work hand-in-hand; that deeds complete faith.  Good deeds are the outworking of a person’s inner faith.

Remember, James is writing to people who had a superficial faith; they professed their faith but apparently their behavior didn’t back up their confession.  Paul wrote to combat false teachers who taught a form of legalism that said good works was all a person needed.  Two writers, two different audiences, two different reasons, yet with one goal:  to get Christians to live like they are supposed to live.  Consider the power of this statement:

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.  (Ephesians 2:10)

No, James didn’t write that, although it sounds very much like something we would expect him to write.  Paul wrote it.

B.  The example of Rahab, 2:25

In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?

The second example James cites for good works is Rahab.  She is commended by James, as well as by the author to the Hebrews for the outworking of her faith in  assisting the spies in the capture of Jericho (Joshua 2:1-21).  Why choose as his examples such extreme opposites:  Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation and Rahab, a prostitute?  James’ principle is a universal one, that applies to all believers; there are no exceptions to the rule that “faith without works is dead.”

In Hebrews 11:17-19, 31, we are told that Rahab’s action in hiding the spies was “by faith.”  James agrees with that, and expands on it saying that she was justified by her works in the sense that what she did proved that she had faith.  Moffatt wrote:

She believed in God, and evidenced her faith by the trouble she took in receiving the scouts and assisting them to escape, at the risk of her own life.  No mere belief this!


James’ conclusion to this matter is masterful.  Weymouth translates verse 26 like this:

Just as a human body without a spirit is lifeless, so also faith is lifeless without obedience.

So serious is the subject of “good deeds” that James revisits it later on, briefly, in the fourth chapter, where we read this:

So then, if you know the good you ought to do and don’t do it, you sin.


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